The ‘Upper Caste Quota’

The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, was passed in the Lok Sabha on January 8 and in the Rajya Sabha the next day and was approved by President Ram Nath Kovind on January 12. It grants 10% reservation to the economically poor among those not covered by other reservations (general category) in government jobs and education institutions. The quota will be over and above the existing 50% reservation to SC, ST and OBC. The move by the Modi Government is aimed at the 2019 general election as the decision follows statements by the RSS, ‘the ideological parent’ of the BJP, attributing the BJP’s recent electoral losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the growing upper caste resentment against the government. Most of the parliamentary parties, including the left, also found it politically inconvenient to oppose it. Clearly, this is more an election-time signal to upper castes than a genuine social justice policy.

Although, the Constitutional Amendment did not specify the criteria for beneficiary, Vijay Sampla, Minister of State, Social Justice and Empowerment, told that those who have an annual salary of less than Rs. 8 lakh per year and possess less than 5 acres of land will be able to avail the reservation. However, NSSO data of 2011-12 shows that the annual per capita expenditure for 99% of households falls under this limit, even after taking inflation into consideration, and the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) showed that the annual household incomes of 98% of households are less than Rs. 8 lakh. Even if we apply all the other criteria for exclusion (e.g. amount of land owned and size of home), it would still cover over 95% of the households [1]. Therefore, the reservation excludes almost no one. Although, the government may try to show that this is a reservation for the poor, it will effectively be an “upper caste quota”, as bulk of those competing for this 10% will be Hindus from the forward castes which continue to have an outsize influence on Indian society. For example, the Lok Sabha continues to be dominated by upper castes. Upper castes continue to have a more prominent presence than their share of the population in other sectors including the judiciary, the civil services, cricket or the private sector [2].

The pioneer of savarna (upper caste) reservation was the Narsimha Rao government which specified in 1991 that 10% vacancies in civil posts and services under the government shall be reserved for economically backward upper castes [3]. However, the Supreme Court rejected it stating that reservation cannot be solely based on caste, nor can it be founded on economic considerations viewed in isolation. Mere poverty, thus, cannot be a test of backwardness. The Supreme Court, citing similar reasons, also struck down Jat reservations in 2015.

Dr B R Ambedkar was of the view that reservations should be seen as an exceptional measure and should be given to those subject to discrimination and marginalisation on account of their stigmatised identity [4]. So, he argued for the quotas for untouchables. However, these higher castes maybe disadvantaged by poverty, but treating material poverty as the sole basis for deciding reservation would dilute the original criteria. The present move, thus, cannot be upheld constitutionally. Article 340 of the constitution says that reservation could be given to socially and educationally backward class of citizens, which means it can be given to a class of citizens, not a group within a class. Also, the criteria for reservation are social and educational background, not economic. Multiple judgments since independence finally culminating in Indra Sawhney and others versus Union of India (1992) restricted reservation to not more than 50%. Moreover, it is to be explored that whether this amendment violates the basic structure of the constitution, as Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (1973) had upheld. Mandal Commission also kept in mind the economic standing of a group, but only as one of the many criteria.

An element of social injustice is rooted in the practice of untouchability, whereas, pure economic backwardness is rooted in the inability of the system to provide jobs. Over the last two decades, government jobs (which the reservation mainly focuses on) have been declining. The absolute number of Central government civilian regular employees decreased by 8,46,998 between 1991 and 2013 (decline of 22%). Likewise, the total number of Scheduled Caste employees declined by 2,00,476 (28%). Total employment in the Indian Railways declined from 16,58,413 in 1991 to 13,33,966 in 2014, with the largest decline in Category C and D jobs [4].

Reservation does not create jobs or eliminate poverty, but is meant to make the social base of decision makers more representative of the underlying social distribution. Reservation for upper castes does not achieve this as they are already well-represented among the elite. The ruling party, though well aware of these issues, wants to show its support to the upper-castes, their major vote bank. In this context, Deshpande rightly pointed out that: “If one adds to this the lynching of Dalits for pursuing their traditional occupations, snatching away of their livelihoods in the name of cow protection, violence targeted at inter-caste marriages and other types of violence related to temple entry or for not following the illegal social norms dictated by untouchability, the writing on the wall is clear” [4].

References

[1] Desai, S. (2019, January 11). A solution in search of a problem: on 10% reservations. Retrieved January 25, 2019, from The Hindu: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-solution-in-search-of-a-problem/article25962037.ece

[2] Venkataramakrishnan, R. (2019, January 10). How can it be both ‘caste-free’ and an upper-caste quota? And why is it so popular? Retrieved January 25, 2019, from Scroll.in: https://scroll.in/article/908783/how-can-it-be-both-caste-free-and-an-upper-caste-quota-and-why-is-it-so-popular

[3] Kakkar, P. (2019, January 10). Reservation Politics: Just How Backward Are the 10% General Category Poor? Retrieved January 25, 2019, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/law/reservation-politics-economically-backward-upper-castes

[4] Deshpande, A. (2019, January 10). Despite the Rhetoric, the 10% Reservation Bill Does Not Aim for a Caste-Free System. Retrieved January 25, 2019, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/caste/reservation-bill-upper-castes

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